A 2016 feature film by Barry Jenkins, Moonlight stars Trevante Rhodes, Ashton Sanders, Naomie Harris, Mahershala Ali and Janelle Monáe. Adapted from the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by Tarell McCraney, the triptych-like narrative follows a young black man grappling with his sexuality while he grows up in poverty-stricken 1980s Miami. Premiering to immense acclaim at the Telluride Film Festival, Moonlight has since been lauded with dozens of awards, including six Golden Globes nominations. The film has also won the AFI Movie of the Year; Best Picture at the Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards; Best Narrative Feature and Audience Choice Awards at the Chicago International Film Festival, among many others.
Ashton Sanders is an actor known for his performance as Chiron in the critically-acclaimed Moonlight, for which he has garnered many awards and commendations. He has also appeared in Straight Outta Compton (2015) and The Retrieval (2013), and was formerly enrolled in the acting program at DePaul University, Chicago.
Filmmaker Barry Jenkins is best known for Moonlight (2016), which follows a series of short films and his 2008 debut feature, Medicine for Melancholy. He has been critically lauded for his screenplay and direction of Moonlight, which debuted at Telluride earlier this year and has since won a ream of awards and six Golden Globe nominations, two for Jenkins himself. He has also received commendations including: the Gotham Independent Film Award for Best Screenplay; The Los Angeles Film Critics Association Awards for Best Director; and the New York Film Critics Circle Awards for Best Director.
Playwright and actor Tarell McCraney was raised in Miami in the 1980s, and is known for his critically lauded works The Brother/Sister Plays and Head of Passes. His play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue inspired the film Moonlight by Barry Jenkins. McCraney won a MacArthur fellowship in 2013, and has been named the new chairman of the playwriting department at the Yale School of Drama.
Raised in Texas, Trevante Rhodes came to acting after running track in college. He co-stars as Chiron in Moonlight, in the adult version of the character and has appeared in HBO’s Westworld as well as the Tyler Perry series If Loving You Is Wrong. Rhodes will appear in the forthcoming Terrence Malick film Weightless.
With just a few small movie roles behind him, actor Ashton Sanders co-stars as Chiron in Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight as devastating portrait of a gay man growing up with a crack addicted mother in 1980s Miami. The film, inspired by Tarell McCraney’s play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue, is presented in three distinct acts: childhood, teenage years, and adulthood. The child Chiron, nicknamed ‘Little’, is played by newcomer Alex R. Hibbert; teenage Chiron by Sanders; and adult Chiron, nicknamed ‘Black’, by Trevante Rhodes. In life, the three actors never met, but portrayed a seamless character, repressed and deeply shy as he navigates his home life and sexuality.
Moonlight is more poetry than narrative, more atmosphere than plotting and lends itself to fully observing Sander’s keen awareness, vulnerability and subtlety as Chiron, who struggles with poverty, ridicule, heartbreak and notions of masculinity. Since its premiere at Telluride in September 2016, Moonlight has become a near-unanimous hit with critics and garnered hundreds of awards and nominations internationally—all of this unsurprising: the film is a triumph in character study.
In the year since filming wrapped, writer-director Jenkins has become a close friend and mentor to Sanders, who has dropped out of Chicago’s DePaul University to pursue acting full-time. Both are navigating their own burgeoning careers, and sit down to discuss Moonlight’s incredible success, parallels between Chiron’s story and their own lives, and being in love with process rather than the result.
Barry Jenkins: How you feelin’ man?
Ashton Sanders: This is not real, man. But it’s a blessing, you know? Everything is happening so fast. I’m just trying to take everything in.
BJ: What do you mean everything is happening so fast? The movie has been done for a whole year.
AS: I was kind of lost in playing Chiron, so it’s crazy to be outside of the character now. Every time I see the film, I have to watch it for what it is, like, “Yo, that’s not me.” It’s surreal. The reception of the film has been really cool. I dropped school to pursue my acting career.
BJ: You know I wasn’t happy with that.
AS: I know, I know.
BJ: I’m not unhappy with you, I’m unhappy with that choice. But I also respect you as a man to make your own decisions. School will always be there.
AS: I’m 21, and I was going to school for acting. I can still take acting classes—that is super essential. The door is so open for me, I would’ve been a fool to not take these opportunities. But that shit was hard man. It was a major life decision.
“Even though you have proven you can do
some really extraordinary things,
you are still developing. The ceiling is much,
much higher. Just always remember:
You may be the shit, but you can be even more
— Barry Jenkins
BJ: I will say, I think there are things you would definitely pick up in a conservatory that are useful. You have to find a way to learn those things in the process, on set. Even though you have proven you can do some really extraordinary things, you are still developing. The ceiling is much, much higher, and I think in a conservatory, you work towards that ceiling. Just always remember: You may be the shit, but you can be even more the shit.
AS: Thank you, I needed to hear that.
BJ: Alright, I want to get back to Moonlight. When you first got the script, what went through your head?
AS: This is going to sound cliché, but once I read the script, I knew I had this part. I immediately connected with it and wanted to be this character. I fell in love, Barry. I’ve fallen in love with everything I’ve read by Tarell McCraney—just his name on the front page was super rad to me—so I knew it was about to be the dopest read ever. l had even been in his work prior: I played Ooshi in The Brother Size. His dialogue is so relatable; the words just roll off my tongue. The script and the imagery are so beautiful; I was able to see the beach Chiron was sitting on. Also, the summer I received the script, my mom had a drug relapse, so I really needed to do something to get out.